Is British food dull?

British food has a reputation for being—sorry, folks, I’m just reporting—somewhere between dull and inedible. Google “British food reputation” and the entries fall into two categories: 1) why British food deserves a bad reputation and 2) why it doesn’t. There’s no 3) why it has a great reputation.

Or none that I found, anyway. Dig deep enough and you can almost always find a contrarian, probably funded by Vladimir Putin or a pair of aging billionaire brothers intent on destroying the world’s sense of taste.

Why do they want to do that? It’s just one of those things you do when you become an aging billionaire, your every whim has already been satisfied, and you’re bored silly. People need challenges. That’s what life’s about.

The people who argue that British food deserves its reputation love making lists of the foods they hate most: baked beans on toast, overboiled vegetables, bangers and mash (that’s sausages plonked on a plate of mashed potatoes). On some lists, fish and chips are part of the problem. On other lists (because the people who defend British food make lists too), they’re the solution. Ditto yorkshire puddings. Ditto a whole bunch of other things. So we’ll skip the details, because if we don’t, we’ll end up arguing over them when we could so easily argue about something more worthwhile.

Although if you want to argue, don’t let me stop you. I’m happy to host (almost) any argument as long as we’re not taking ourselves too seriously.

Irrelevant and not-quite-in-season photo: Primroses. They should be in bloom soon. Photo by Ida Swearingen

One word that comes up a lot in this discussion is stodgy. In British English, that means food that’s “heavy, filling, and high in carbohydrates.” (I’ll skip the link; it’s one of those unattributed definitions Lord Voldemort—sorry, Lord Google—likes to supply.) The synonyms are “indigestible, starchy, filling, heavy, solid, substantial, lumpy, and leaden.”

Yum.

As usual, Lord Google offered to translate that into French. It’s lourde or indigeste.

Why French? Why not French? Hell, why offer to translate it at all? I reset the offer to Spanish and got pesado (heavy) and indigesto (indigestible). I had to check my Spanish-English dictionary to be sure of indigesto, because it’s not a word I’ve had any reason to use and although it sounds convincing you can get into all sorts of weird situations relying on words that sound like words you know in your home language.

Do I distrust Google translations? You bet your mistranslated ass I do. Sadly, my dictionary doesn’t include the Spanish for stodgy, so I ended my research there. The dictionary’s a paperback. It’s missing lots of stuff. On the other hand, it doesn’t weigh much.

I’m off the topic, aren’t I? How does that happen?

The word stodgy comes up a lot in connection with British puddings. Before we go on, it you’re American, write your definition of pudding on a slip of paper, crumple it up, and throw it out the window. It’s not helpful here.

Done? Good. Now: In this context, pudding means (I think, but don’t trust me on this) more or less any dessert, although a pudding can also be an unsweetened non-dessert. Dessert also means dessert. So, if you’re still with me, dessert means dessert and pudding means dessert as well as non-dessert, and dessert includes what Americans know as pudding, which (and we’re talking about pudding here) can include non-dessert.

And with that level of confusion, you wonder why British food has a reputation problem, right?

What does stodgy mean in the U.S.? Dull and uninspired. I can’t remember ever hearing it used about food, but if it was it wouldn’t stretch far enough to mean an entire category of food, it’d just be a description of some one thing.

Anyway, all I want to do here is establish that British food has a reputation problem. Whether it’s deserved or not doesn’t matter. At least for the purposes of this post, because we’re not actually going to eat anything. We’re online. The technology that would make eating together possible doesn’t exist yet. What matters here is how British chefs respond to their reputation problem.

Now, by way of (even more) background, I read recipes in the newspaper. They extend the range of my cooking, they amuse the hell out of me, and they’re entirely nonfattening. Plus the recipe section of Saturday’s paper is one place where, reliably, nobody’s being run out of their country or left to freeze in a refugee camp while the world says it’s all someone else’s problem, and no one’s being sent back to the country that ran them out in the first place because they didn’t say, “Mother, may I?”.

It’s not that I don’t read the news, it’s just that I need a place to hide from it now and then.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that a lot of British chefs work hard at being interesting. It may keep them from being stodgy and predictable, but their recipes tip over into the strange very easily.

A while back the paper had a series of lasagna recipes, and before I go on, I have to tell you that when I looked for them online Lord Google, for no apparent reason,  offered to define lasagna for me in Hindi. Well, who could resist? It’s spelled लॉसॉन्य (unless I accidentally copied a word from an ad—I’m illiterate in Hindi) and it seems to mean “lasagna.” I say “seems” because neither of the two sites that offered to translate it for me were particularly clear about the whole business, and after two tries I kind of lost interest.

But—this won’t surprise you, will it?—we’re off topic.

Now I do understand that Italian lasagna (or maybe that should be plural: lasagne; British food writers like the E spelling, even if they’re talking about a single lasagna) varies from region to region. Having grown up with American lasagna, which has a limited range, I think this is wrong, wrong, wrong, but the Italians invented the stuff, so I guess they get to do what they want with it and I get to not argue.

The standard British lasagna is also wrong, but since they didn’t invent it, I feel free to complain.

The American version uses tomato sauce, ricotta, mozzarella, and parmesan, plus either hamburger (that’s mince, if you’re British) or no hamburger (and possibly some veggies) to make it vegetarian. And, of course, lasagna noodles. The British version substitutes lots of thick, tasteless white sauce for the tomato sauce. It’s the perfect example of stodge, now that I think of it. I’m not sure what kind of cheeses they put in there, if any, because the white sauce overpowers everything. It’s basically noodles and glue.

Lasagna’s one of the things British pubs have figured out they can feed vegetarians, so periodically I get stuck eating it. It probably comes to them frozen, from a lasagna factory in Liverpool or some other Italian city. They all taste the same, which is to say, they don’t really taste at all.

But the lasagna recipes I mentioned went beyond the standard British version. That was the point: To be inventive and edgy and out-there and earn five gold stars. To not be stodgy. So what did they add? One had hazelnuts and dill and caraway seeds. Another had fish and coriander and feta cheese.

Is coriander Italian? Slices of Blue Sky quotes the New York Times as saying that it was used in the Roman Empire and foreign-born chefs are bringing it back into use in Italy. So it’s traditional in roughly the same way tattoos are (or may be) traditionally British, which is to say you can make a case for it but you’ll need to do a lot of warm-up exercises first, because it ain’t easy.

I’m working on a piece that makes the case for tattoos. It’s fun and may even be correct, but it’s not a simple argument–or possibly even a convincing one.

Feta cheese is Greek.

Italy is not Greece, something you’ll learn quickly if you go there and try to get by entirely in Greek.

Fish come from the water, and although all countries on this planet have at least some water, that doesn’t mean fish belong in lasagna. Most countries also have at least some grass, but that’s not a good argument for tossing it into lasagna.

The recipes were online and had a comment box, so I thought about offering my own let’s-not-be-stodgy take on lasagna. It involves dark chocolate, mayonnaise, half a cup of Coke, and one finely chopped bicycle tire, but someone with an Italian name had already written, “None of these recipes have anything to do with Italian cuisine,” so I kept it to myself. I didn’t want to make an international incident any worse, but the world is a poorer place because of my silence.

Enough about lasagna. The same thing happens with hamburgers. British chefs approach them as nothing more than a blank slate on which they can write their names.

In the U.S., a good hamburger’s made with ground beef and nothing more. You make it interesting by the way you cook it and what you put on it. And, of course, by using good beef.

In Britain, it’s the rare cook who’s brave enough to do that. One relatively simple recipe I found calls for egg, cracker crumbs, parmesan, and fried onions. You  mix all that together and set it in the refrigerator for two hours while it recovers from the insult. Another one asks you to mix in mustard, ketchup, egg, garlic, onion, and chili. I’m not sure what they mean by chili. Probably a chile pepper, but it could as easily be the sweet, gluey (c’mon, I’m being as neutral as I can manage) chili sauce sauce they sell here, or else that stuff you make with beans and meat (or buy in a can). Who can tell?

A third wants egg, bread crumbs, evaporated milk, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper, and garlic.

Evaporated milk? Inspired addition. Would it be okay if I substitute whipped cream?

Someone else adds sun dried tomatoes—along, of course, with a whole bunch of other stuff.

You see what’s happening here? Every one of those recipe writers is screaming, “I’m not boring!”

And they’re right. They’re not. But they’re also doing nothing to redeem the reputation of British cooking.

Banning pineapples

Breaking news: Pineapples are dangerous.

Okay, that’s not exactly breaking news. The BBC covered it on the 14th and it’s the 15th as I type this. But for Notes? That counts as instantaneous coverage.

Here’s as much sense as I can make of the story: It’s music festival season in Britain, when music lovers pay money to set up tents in muddy fields, ingest various substances, legal and illegal, and listen to their favorite bands play so loud that they damage their own and the audience’s eardrums.

Okay, I haven’t been to any festivals. I admit that. I’m so old that if I showed up people would turn to each other and ask, “What’s she doing here?” So I’m guessing at most of it. Except for the mud. That I have on good authority.

Managing a crowd that size has to be at the back of the organizers’ minds. How do we make sure no one gets hurt? How do we handle food, sanitation, trash collection? So among other things, they issue lists of banned items–things you can’t bring in.

The Reading and Leeds festivals have added pineapples to their list, putting them right up there with weapons, drones, fireworks, glass, gas canisters, non-service animals, and paper lanterns. The BBC explains, “Organisers said it was because fans of Oxford band Glass Animals bring hundreds of the fruit to its gigs, in a nod to song ‘Pork Soda’ which includes the lyrics ‘pineapples are in my head.’ ”

Does that explain anything to you? Me neither. A spokesman for the festivals said, “The tongue may be slightly in cheek on this one.”

Or possibly not. You’ll have to show up with one to find out. The festivals run from August 25 to 27. Hurry.

My thanks to Deb for drawing my attention to this important story.

Weetabix, British breakfasts, and plasticated creativity

Okay, settle down at the back, because this will be on the test: New Zealand impounded 300 boxes of the British cereal Weetabix because it sounded too much like the New Zealand cereal Weet-Bix.

Everyone involved is roaring and snorting and threatening and complaining, and I’m not going to quote any of them because they’re all saying predictable stuff. Except for the article I linked to in the last paragraph, which says—in the least inflammatory possible way—that the cereal’s being held hostage.

Free the Weetabix 300!

The reason I mention this—remember, I’m supposed to be writing about Britain, not New Zealand—is that it reminds me that Weetabix is central to British culture. And that I haven’t mentioned it till now.

What are—or possibly is—Weetabix? It—or possibly they—are made of whole wheat, malted barley extract, sugar, salt, and vitaminny things (or at least things that sound like vitamins, but what do I know?), which are then flattened into—oh, something that kind of looks like an oblong kitchen scrubby—a brown one.

Or that’s what they—let’s go with they, okay?—look like to me anyway.

Irrelevant photo: a poppy

Wild Thing and I tried them once. It wasn’t part of an effort to understand Britain better. We were at our local store (which is also our local post office) and some German tourists had just left after trying to ship an entire carton of the stuff home to themselves. When they found out how much it was going to cost, they took their package off the scales and tossed it in the back of the car instead.

By the time we arrived, the women working there were still going helpless with giggles and saying something along the lines of, “A carton of Weetabix,” as if it was the punchline of some long, delicious joke that was too British for us to ever understand. So we thought we should try them. Maybe we thought they’d taste good, or be good for us. Or maybe we just wanted to understand the joke. It was a long time ago and I’m not sure I understood our motives at the time, never mind in hindsight. What I can report is that on contact with milk Weetabix immediately turn mooshy and inedible. We not only didn’t finish our box, we didn’t finish our bowls. I have no idea what we did with the rest. I don’t like to waste food, but you have to make an exception to some rules.

If they’re so nasty, why do people like them? Well, this is a country that loves mushy peas. And porridge, which is only one step away from wallpaper paste. So people here—people, just to be clear about this, who aren’t us, and to be even clearer, some people here, not all people here—just love them.

A quick browse online led me to The Student Room (“The largest student community in the world”; sorry kids—I’ll be out of here in a minute, and anyway, it’s not a locker room; is everyone decent?), which asked the burning question, “What kind of Weetabix do you eat and how?”

It’s interesting (I’m trying not to say “bizarre”) enough that they asked the question, but even more so that people cared enough to answer it. Which reassures me that young people will still rise to an intellectual challenge if you present them with one.

The answers (before I got bored and left, snapping a towel or two on my way out) include: with lots of sugar; with yogurt and jelly; with warm milk and sugar; with cold milk and sugar; microwaved with milk, sugar, and chocolate; with a spoon; with banana; with banana-flavored milk. With more sugar, and a little more sugar after that. The company website promotes the stuff as low in sugar and it’s good to see the impact that’s had on the nation’s health.

The company also promotes it as a kind of all-purpose crunchy base—something you’d spread with soft cheese and Peter Piper’s picked peppers, or with jam, and then, since you have to do something with it, eat. Or laminate and display on your coffee table. They also have recipes. You can bake muffins and loaves and cakes with the stuff, or crumble it up and bread chicken with it. So basically, you can use it for anything. You’re short of wallpaper paste? Weetabix. Your bike tires need patching? Weetabix. Need a base for your kids’ art projects? Weetabix, Weetabix, Weetabix.

The underlying message seems to be that if you buy it, you can be creative. Open a box and spark up your deadly dull life. Just think—you can choose hot milk or cold; banana or anchovies; pickles or iron filings.

Now let’s be clear. I come from the country that brought the world American cheese, Cheez Whiz, and Cool Whip.

I should explain those for readers who’ve kept their innocence: The first two are cheese that’s been processed into unrecognizability. American cheese looks like suspiciously smooth sliced cheese but it has the texture and taste of nice, soft plastic. When I was a kid, I thought it was great. Cheez Whiz squirts out of a can. Do not give it to kids who are having a party. Cool Whip contains (or so Wikipedia said when I checked) water, hydrogenated vegetable oil, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, skimmed milk, light cream, less than 2% sodium caseinate, natural and artificial flavor, xanthan and guar gums, polysorbate 60, sorbitan monostearate, and beta carotene.

No, I don’t know what most of that is either.

It also squirts out of a can and produces something that looks like whipped cream and tastes like something that looks like whipped cream. In Canada, they use nitrous oxide as a propellant, That’s laughing gas. This is something else you don’t want to give to kids who are having a party. Especially if they’re old enough to know about the propellant.

If you grew up on real cheese and whipped cream—the kind that recognizably come from dairy products—you’ll be scandalized by all three of them. So I have no right to be snotty about what people in other countries eat. That won’t stop me, but I do want to acknowledge the injustice of it.

The United States also (as far as I can figure out) gave the world the paint-by-the-numbers kit, so the U.S. is no stranger to canned creativity. I was about to say that buying creativity in a cereal box takes us a step beyond that, but then I remembered a series of advertising campaigns implying that creativity consisted of putting something new and exciting on a Ritz cracker. Or maybe it was a Triscuit.

I tell you, I grew up in an exciting world.

So what Weetabix is doing is no worse than that, except that it tastes like moosh and Ritz crackers and Triscuits at least taste like crackers.

Okay, I never tried a dry Weetabix. I’d expect it to taste a lot like hay, but I’m not buying a box just so I can give you a description. I’m going to step aside and trust that someone will step in and tell me—probably that they taste great. If that’s what you hear, take it with a grain of salt, folks. These things are highly subjective.

More than you need to know about fish and chips

Janice Wald at Mostly Blogging called my attention to the role fish and chips play in the British diet, so let’s see what you can learn about them from a vegetarian.

The Federation of British Friers (who are not to be confused with friars, who may have eaten fish on Fridays but otherwise have nothing to do with the story) writes that “fish and chips are the undisputed National dish of Great Britain.”

Yes, they do capitalize national for no better reason than that it matters to them. It’s a British thing, capitalizing words they like.

No, they’re not objective; these are the people who fry fish for a living, or at least represent the businesses that fry fish. But that stuff about fish and chips being the national dish agrees with pretty every other source I checked. Historic U.K. claims, “Fish, chips and mushy peas! There is nothing more British than fish and chips.”

Yeah, they’re asking a lot of that exclamation point, and the poor little thing didn’t manage to generate the excitement they were looking for, but I’ve done a bit of freelance writing myself and I cranked out copy that was just as dismal. So let’s just nod knowingly and move on.

Irrelevant photo: a surfer, riding a rock.

In fact, we’ll move on so fast that we’ll skid right past the mushy peas for now. I’ll come back to them. What you need to know for now is that everyone says fish and chips are as British as it’s possible to be.

Except for beer, because in a recent post I quoted an ad supplement that claimed eccentricity, beer, apologies, and tea were the essential elements of Britishness. It didn’t mention fish and chips. It all goes to show that you shouldn’t take anyone’s word for the essentials of Britishness.

And all the more so since neither source mentioned curry, although people here often say, “Nothing’s as British as a curry.” It’s meant to have an ironic edge, curry being a cultural import and all, unlike the deeply British fish and chips, but it turns out fish and chips also came from someplace else. They—or is fish and chips an it? Singular fish, singular dish, plural chips. It’s messy. Anyway, they or it either were or was brought here by (gasp) immigrants.

And the immigrants in question were, in case anyone isn’t getting this, foreigners, every last one of them.

So what are people who want their British culture pure to do? Give up both curry and fish and chips? What’ll be left?

Maybe a kebab. Or a plate of spaghetti. Or a nice cup of tea.

National purity’s hard to find. If you locate any, send up a flare, would you?

The BBC (which covers all the important stories) reports that “fried fish was introduced into Britain by Jewish refugees from Portugal and Spain. The fish was usually sold by street sellers from large trays hung round their necks. Charles Dickens refers to an early fish shop or ‘fried fish warehouse’ in Oliver Twist (1839) where the fish generally came with bread or baked potatoes.”

Fried fish was (were?) introduced in the seventeenth century—roughly the same time as fried potatoes. (The potato was brought from the Americas earlier, by Sir Walter Raleigh. Unless it was brought by Sir Francis Drake. You can find claims for both.) It was probably the French who first thought of deep frying them.

So that’s yet another bunch of foreigners messing with British cooking.

Chips, by the way, is American for what the British call crisps. Sort of. We (the we here being Americans) usually add “potato,” so it’s potato chips. Chips is British for what Americans call french fries.

Are you still with me? Am I? I went over that three times to make sure I hadn’t gotten lost.

Some of the sources I read are clear about the immigrant role in hooking Britain on fish and chips, but a few manage to run through the entire history without mentioning it. I’d be amused if immigration weren’t such a charged issue just now.

The north and south of Britain both claim to have invented the combination of fish and chips. According to Wikipedia (when I checked; it will have changed by now), “Some credit a northern entrepreneur called John Lees. As early as 1863, it is believed he was selling fish and chips out of a wooden hut at Mossley market in industrial Lancashire.

“Others claim the first combined fish ‘n’ chip shop was actually opened by a Jewish immigrant, Joseph Malin, within the sound of Bow Bells in East London around 1860.

“However it came about, the marriage quickly caught on. At a time when working-class diets were bleak and unvaried, fish and chips were a tasty break from the norm.

“Outlets sprung up across the country and soon they were as much a part of Victorian England as steam trains and smog.

“Italian migrants passing through English towns and cities saw the growing queues and sensed a business opportunity, setting up shops in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

“To keep prices down, portions were often wrapped in old newspaper–a practice that survived as late as the 1980s when it was ruled unsafe for food to come into contact with newspaper ink without grease-proof paper in between.”

During both world wars, fish and chips were considered so essential to civilian morale that protecting the supplies was a government priority. During World War II, they were one of the few foods that were never rationed, although that doesn’t mean they were always available. When word got out that the local chippie had fish, queues formed and people were willing to wait an hour or more.

I’m not sure if fish and chips are still considered primarily working class or if they’ve gone upmarket. I do know that they’re not as popular as they once were, partly because, as stocks of cod and haddock have been depleted by overfishing, the price has gone up and partly because people have become leery about eating too much fried food. But there are still some still 8,500 fish and chip shops in U.K.

And here we circle back to mushy peas, because all or most of them sell mushy peas as well.

I think. Listen, I’m a vegetarian. I don’t poke my nose into fish and chip shops if I can help it, and I generally can. I’m taking other people’s word for this.

If you’re not British, you’re asking, “Mushy what?”

Peas. They’re dried peas, soaked and then boiled with a little salt, a little sugar, and some baking soda, called bicarbonate of soda here, until they form a lumpy, green moosh and taste of nothing in particular.

Why would anybody eat that, never mind do it? Well, it’s food. If you eat it, it will fill your stomach. And if you grow up on it, you’ll learn to love it. Either that or you’ll run screaming every time they’re mentioned.

When I told my friend R. that Wild Thing and I had worked up our courage and tried mushy peas, she told me people eat them with fish and chips, not on their own. And given the British habit of packing a bit of every food on the plate on the end of their fork, that means they can count of the fish to lend the peas some taste.

How do Americans eat? One food per bite unless the dish itself mixes them the way, say, stew does, or a mixed salad. No, I don’t know why. I also don’t know why the British eat a bit of everything at once. Honestly, I’m no longer sure why anyone does anything. Humans are hard to make sense of.

By the time R. told me that mushy peas weren’t meant to be eaten on their own, we’d each taken one lone bite and didn’t feel the need to try again. I may be a vegetarian and they may be vegetabilian, but I don’t go out of my way to eat oak leaves and grass either, and they’re equally vegetabilian.

I’ve now told you everything I know about fish and chips and mushy peas–and more.

Could the next topic someone throws at me be about something that’s more clearly either singular or plural? Please?

 

British beer and summer festivals

An ad insert in the Saturday paper last month claimed to be a guide to “the best beer, food and good times in the UK this summer.” Mostly, though, it was a guide to beer, but if you drink enough of the stuff you’ll probably decide you had a good time. Even if you don’t remember it.

Anyway, the insert had a lot about beer and a little about food (some of it cooked in beer), but it threw in a few festivals—where beer’s sold—so no one had to feel like they were reading Alcoholics Weekly.

And it all came with a generous side of pretension.

Irrelevant photo: a blackberry bush–or bramble–in flower if not in perfect focus.

Because I blog, though, I read the thing instead of tossing it in the recycling the way I would have in my saner days. I only do these things for you, and I hope you appreciate it.

So what did I learn? That you should pour your beer at a 45-degree angle, just the way you’d pour champagne.

Sorry, you didn’t know how to pour champagne? What kind of barbarians am I hanging out with?

I learned that beer should be served in “glassware that maximises its notes and taste.”

How can you tell if it maximizes them? This will vary with the alcohol content of your brew, but as a general rule, if your beer hits a pure A above middle C you’ve maximized too many notes and it’s time to go home.

Let someone else drive, will you?

I learned that beer has fewer calories than red wine. And possibly than white wine, although it only gave statistics for red.

It also has fewer calories than the entire contents of a restaurant refrigerator, but the supplement didn’t brag about that.

The statistics were for 4% beer, although the beers whose alcohol content was mentioned ran as high as 4.7%. How much of a difference does that make? I have no idea. But do you want my advice? Of course you don’t. Do I care? Of course I do, but I won’t hear from you till long after my fingers have stopped typing so what you might have said is kind of irrelevant, isn’t it?

So here’s the advice: If you’re counting calories, drink water. And don’t eat the entire contents of the restaurant refrigerator.

Since I just did something particularly British, I should take a moment to point it out. Embedding a question your listener can’t answer (“isn’t it?”) into a statement (“what you might have said is kind of irrelevant,”) is a very British way to put a sentence together. I’m not sure what it tells us about the culture, but even after eleven years in this country it still throws me. Someone could be explaining physics, or how to count time when you’re mangling a jazz standard—two topics about which I’m deeply ignorant, although I mangle all too well—and at the most intricate and baffling point in the explanation they’ll ask for confirmation of it all by saying, “isn’t it?” or something along those lines.

And I’ll nod. It’s automatic. Or worse, I’ll say yes, although for all I know they made the whole thing up. How could I tell? Especially since the British count musical time in breves and crotchets and hemidemisemiquavers and I learned (barely) to (not quite) count them in whole, half, quarter, and eighth notes.

I don’t think that eighth note doesn’t take us down as far as the hemidemisemiquaver, but when I was (not quite) learning this stuff, notes any smaller than an eighth scared me into catatonia. I’d look at all those marks on the page and see a particularly intricate and intimidating form of no information at all. So I’ll stop with the eighth note.

The hemidemisemiquaver really does exist, even if it sounds like something Dr. Seuss made up. I’m not sure how much time one takes up, but little enough that if I thought about it too long it would scare me much more than any eighth note ever did, so let’s move on.

I still haven’t figured out what the British do when they’re tossed a question like, “That’s a hemidemisemiquaver, isn’t it?” Do they agree, even if they don’t know? Do they ignore the question mark and wait for the speaker to go on, since it’s not really a question? For reasons I can’t explain, I’ve managed not to notice.

But we were talking about beer. Which is essential to British culture, so forget the fripperies. Let’s get back to the core of our conversation.

How do I know beer’s essential to British culture? (That’s not an isn’t-it? question, it’s a lazy way of structuring a piece of writing and lazy writing crosses cultures comfortably.) I know because the guide says so: “Eccentricity,” it says in a desperate effort to charm, “is an essential part of Britishness; as much a part of our national identity as beer drinking, apologizing too frequently and making a cup of tea at the first sign of trouble.”

We’ll skip the apologies and the tea in this post and instead work our way toward exploring that eccentricity, because almost as essential to British culture as beer are summer festivals, and the guide lists a handful. Most—and I’m sure this is coincidence—are beer festivals, but when they’re not, it helpfully tells you where to look for a beer if you attend.

“Make a date with beer,” it says.

A date? Damn. When I drank the stuff, it didn’t insist on a date. If you were at least minimally solvent, you could just wander into the nearest liquor store and pick some up. You didn’t have to bring it flowers or even wear clean clothes. But beer’s gone upscale. It took a course on improving its self-esteem. So make a date. Wash your clothes. Take a shower. People can tell.

The guide says food and beer festivals “aren’t just fun—they can be highly educational too.” One festival is described as “upmarket camping” and includes a bar on wheels (if you can’t catch it, go to bed; you’ve had enough) and a stargazing session led by an astronomer—presumably sober and not in an acute state of despair over what it takes a highly educated professional to make a living these days, but I don’t really know. People who couldn’t catch the bar can lie on their backs and be educated until they pass out.

But I promised we’d come back to that business about eccentricity, didn’t I?

Sleaford, Lincolnshire (actually the nearby and smaller Swaton, where as far as I can figure it out the festival takes place), held the World Egg Throwing Championships on June 25 this year. It was mentioned in the beer supplement, but we’re going to abandon the supplement at this point and go to primary sources.

In one contest, the goal is to hit a target—probably a real person but I can’t swear to that. With an egg, of course. In another, contestants toss an egg back and forth , moving further and further apart until the inevitable happens. In a third, they pass an egg down a line as quickly as possible.

But the best contest is Russian Egg Roulette, where each contestant gets a tray of six eggs and breaks them, one at a time, against his or her forehead. Five of them are hardboiled. One’s raw. I’m guessing that if you pick that one, you lose.

The event is also—helpfully—be a beer festival.

George Clooney declined an invitation to attend, although I can’t think why. He was invited after organizers read that he had an egg-flinging machine at home to discourage paparazzi.

The article I read didn’t say who has to clean up the eggs George flings. I’m guessing it’s not him.

Stories I found online show the competition going back to 2010, so I wouldn’t say this qualifies as a traditional British festival. If you’re thinking about entering next year, a small change in your google search will call up a set of links about the physics of egg throwing, which might or might not be useful, depending on your ability to understand them.

Another recently invented competition is the World Bog Snorkelling Championship, which is held in Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales, and is now in its thirty-second year. Contestants swim two lengths of a 60-meter (or 55-meter, depending on who you want to believe) trench that runs through a peat bog. They can’t use any conventional swimming stroke but they can use a snorkel and (as far as I can figure out) must dress in some sort of ridiculous costume. I don’t know how they decide who wins, or if anyone cares.

The pictures are great. It seems to be held in August, so there’s still time if you want to enter.

Moving on, Bognor Regis holds the Birdman Competition in which people jump off the end of a pier and either try to fly or just have a good time dropping into the water. (Beer may also be involved here. I couldn’t possibly comment.) . My favorite contestant was the guy dressed as a box of popcorn.

Disappointingly, some of the contestants actually did manage to glide. I do know that birds, in general, fly, and that flying’s probably the goal here, but given the choice I’ll still root for the box of popcorn plunging feet-first into the sea.

I watched the videos with the sound off. If they say anything truly obnoxious, I didn’t catch it. You’re on your own.

Our final festival is a traditional one, dating back to the ninth century. Or the sixteenth, depending on who you want to believe. This is a truly inspired event: The Dog Inn, in Ludham Bridge, Norfolk, hosts a dwile flonking competition.

The official website says:

“Dwile Flonking is normally played by two teams dressed as country ‘yokels’ (or any other fancy dress including team T-Shirts/uniform etc). One team joins hands to form a ring which circles round, leaping into the air as they do so (Girting). A. member of the other team goes into the middle of the circle and puts a beer-soaked dwile on the end of a stick (Driveller). He spins round and has to project (Flonk) the dwile off the driveller with the object of hitting one of the players circling round him. He scores points for his team according to which part of the body he hits. When all the players in one team have flonked, they then form a circle and girt, while the other team takes turns to flonk. The team with the most points at the end being the winners.

“So the point is to flonk your dwile off the driveller and hit a girter.”

If you break the rules, the referee calls a foul flonk.

The original rules required the flonker to drink a pot of beer—somewhere between half a pint and a pint of the stuff. But in these milder times we live in, flonkers have the choice of drinking the beer or pouring it over their heads and drinking an equal amount of ginger beer.

And—just to prove a claim I made in some much earlier post which I’m not going to go looking for, that the British sing when drunk—there’s a song involved: “As the teams, enter the playing area, and after the game, they: may feel like singing the flonking song “Here we’em be t’gether”. The first verse plus the chorus is normally sung at the start of the game, the full song may be sung at the end (if they have enough breath left).”

And no, I’m not slandering them when I say they’re drunk, I’m just taking their word for it. One of the verses goes:

Now the game it do end and down go the sun,
And one team ha’ lorst and the other ha’ won.
But nobody knows of the score on the board,
Cos they’re flat on their backs and as drunk as a Lord!

Championships are listed in Coventry and Nottingham as well as Ludham Bridge, and I find a reference to dwiling in Suffolk as well. Wikipedia (at the moment) calls it a traditional English game and quotes a source that says, “’The rules of the game are impenetrable and the result is always contested.”

I believe both statements, even if someone’s gone through and changed them by now.

British food: the ploughman’s lunch

Never say that I dodge the tough issues here. Chris White wrote in a comment that she couldn’t get a ploughman’s lunch in Scotland, and Laura, who blogs as A PIct in PA, wrote back, “I am a Scot from Scotland and have eaten many a ploughman’s lunch. I wonder why you are being denied this small but significant pleasure in life.”

What’s going on here? As it turns out, I can’t answer the question, but just so you don’t think I’m dodging it, I can tell you some interesting stuff about the ploughman’s lunch.

Irrelevant photo #1: This is what Fast Eddie usually looks like.

Irrelevant photo #2: This is what Fast Eddie looks like when he has an appointment with the vet. So the question is, how does he know?

The ploughman’s lunch—or just the ploughman’s if you’re short on time—consists of cheese, bread, butter, chutney, a pickled onion, and some random bits of green stuff. The cheese and bread should be large and chunky, or so sayeth the experts—and one expert sayeth that it should have ham as well. Another expert argues that you should make it out of whatever you have on hand, which sounds to me like a great recipe.

Now on to the interesting stuff: The ploughman’s isn’t a time-honored dish from Olde England. It was invented in the 1960s by the Milk Marketing Board, which was trying to promote the sale of cheese, especially in pubs. It will be referred to later, in a quote, as the MMB, so burn that into your memory or we’ll lose you and I hate when that happens.

But we can trace the story back a little further than the sixties. In 1956, the monthly bulletin of the Brewers Society reported that the Cheese Bureau “exists for the admirable purpose of popularising cheese and, as a corollary, the public house lunch of bread, beer, cheese and pickle. This traditional combination was broken by rationing; the Cheese Bureau hopes, by demonstrating the natural affinity of the two parties, to effect a remarriage.”

Two parties? They named four. That might have made a remarriage difficult, but no, they’re still together, although the pickle walked out and was replaced by chutney. I guess they figured three was an unstable number.

The pickled onion loyally marks the place where the pickle used to be.

In Britain, Pickle (with no S, just the singular pickle) is pretty much anything preserved in vinegar or brine as long as it’s chopped up so you can spread it on bread. Chutney is–as far as I can figure out–a pickle but it doesn’t seem to be called pickle. Are you still with me? Because I’m not sure I am. When a sandwich is listed as cheese and pickle, that means it has some gluey, pickly dark stuff on it–something that isn’t chutney.

Just for the record, I don’t like either of them.

But let’s stop gossiping about other people’s relationships. The point is that the combination was traditional. The new elements were the name and the spin. A website called Good Taste writes,

“The genius was in Sir Trehane’s romanticising the meal [Trehane was the Milk Marketing Board’s chair]. We must remember that at the time only a few rural pubs had indoor toilets, let alone a kitchen with a cook, so the Ploughman’s Lunch was designed to include raw ingredients that could easily be stored in a cool cellar and put together quickly and easily by bar staff with little or no culinary training. However, the cleverest part of the deception was in the MMB’s (or more strictly, its little known arm, the English Country Cheese Council) designing of the dish, the inclusion of just ‘cheese’. This allowed each region of the country to use its own regional cheese: Caerphilly, Cheddar, Cheshire, Derby, Double Gloucester, Lancashire, Red Leicester, Stilton, Wensleydale. All were initially served with a chunk of bread and a dollop of chutney for extra kick.

“However, the cheeses used were never those from the romantic image of the English countryside the MMB painted: they were little to do with real cheese, being efficiently produced in large, bright modern factories. Just as Kodak never actually sold or advertised film, they advertised memories, the MMB didn’t say ‘buy more cheese’, they simply sold it as a memory of a pre-war England washed down with traditional English Ale.”

So rationing was central to all of this, If you’re not from Britain, you may not know that rationing continued well past the end of World War II. The country came out of the war nearly broke, with damn little to export and no money to import food. The story’s complicated and involves not just Britain but also American politics, and it’s worth a post of its own if I can thread my way through the various elements that go into an explanation. I’d welcome any comments but I’ll leave the topic alone for now rather than get it wrong or oversimplify it.

So let’s go back to the ploughman’s lunch. The Ploughman’s Plot was successful enough that these days the lunch is on menus everywhere (at least in England and Cornwall–I can’t swear to its presence in Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland) and you can find posts on how to make one. I even found an article on how to eat one. My advice is to use your mouth, but that’s probably why no one’s hired me to write about food. I run out of words too quickly. The author talks authoritatively about whether it’s better to serve one on a slate or a wooden board. I’ve mostly seen them on plates, but maybe I’m not hanging out in the right places.

If you really need more detail on how to eat a ploughman’s, though, here’s what I can tell you: I generally take the chutney and move it off the plate, where I can pretend I don’t see it. Next I eye the pickled onion warily and move it as far away from the real food as possible. I’d put it on the table but pickled onions are damp and they’re messy, so I don’t feel free to do that in a public place.

Then I eat what’s left, which is basically a cheese sandwich that you get to play with.

A quick online check for “ploughman’s lunch Scotland” (this is, you’ll remember, where we started) brought up a few of places where they’re on the menu, but a lot of the links defaulted to England. That may mean the ploughman’s not as widespread in Scotland or it may mean I didn’t put in the word combination that would unlock the information I wanted. The Good Taste quote makes it sound like it was an English creation, so it may well have run up against Scottish nationalism, in which case–sorry, Laura–it’s doomed.

What I can tell you with certainty is that, unless it’s on a menu and the menu capitalizes all the dishes, there isn’t a reason in hell to capitalize ploughman’s lunch the Good Taste does–along with a shitload of other stuff that should be lower case. Because once the dish wanders off the menu and into what passes for the real world, it needs to surrender its caps. The world will be a safer place that way.

Living dangerously: the Cornish cream tea goes nationwide

The U.K. coffee chain Costa is boldly going where no sensible business wanted to go before.

What are they doing? Selling cream tea the Cornish way, not the Devon way.

Background break: What’s a cream tea? Two plain scones, strawberry (or sometimes blackcurrant, but they’re going with the more popular strawberry) jam, and clotted cream, which is cream that’s been beatified. I’ve made that joke before. My apologies if you remember it, but I couldn’t think of a better explanation. Plus tea, of course, except that Costa will substitute coffee, which will piss off the purists in both counties.

What’s the difference between the Cornish and the Devon cream tea? In Cornwall, you put the jam on the scone first. In Devon, you start with the cream.

Nations have gone to war over less.

Nobody asked for my advice, but I’d have suggested giving people the fixings and letting them figure out what to do. That would let Costa smile serenely and claim nothing is their fault. Because there’ll be hell to pay over this in Devon.

*

And a quick note: It’s summer, apparently, because the first cygnets—baby swans, to those of you not in the know—have been born at the Abbotsbury Swannery, in Dorset.. The Western Morning News (which I can’t find online, so no link, which is a shame because they had a great photo) reports that this is the traditional signal. Here in Cornwall, it’s gray and I’m wearing two sweatshirts, but who am I to argue with tradition?

A rare relevant photo: Swan with cygnets, from Pixabay.

Brussels sprouts at Christmas: a crisis update

What’s the latest crisis in Britain? A super-pest, the diamondback moth, attacked this year’s British brussels sprout crop and supermarkets are struggling to keep their shelves stocked with this all-important Christmas vegetable.

What will become of us all, my friends?

And this isn’t only a Christmas issue. It seems people have taken to using brussels sprouts out of season by adding them to smoothies and salads and stir fries. Next year, we’ll start seeing them in cakes and cookies. And as a nice green layer in a trifle. They’ll taste terrible, but won’t they be pretty? And hey, they’re good for you. Mmmm. Eat your dessert, kids, and you can have some main dish.

If you’re not British enough to know what a trifle is, it involves whipped cream and custard and fruit and something cakey and something else alcoholish. Unless all the ingredients except the whipped cream have been replaced with other things, such as jelly, which is Jello, instead of the custard and orange juice instead of the alcohol and brussels sprouts instead of fruit. Once you start all that, you might as well replace the whipped cream with shaving cream. I mean, why not? It’s cheaper. I think. I haven’t done a price comparison. Anyway, in its natural state, trifle is sublime. When you start swapping ingredients, you start to lose sublimity. Or is that sublimosity?

I confess, I actually like brussels sprouts. But that’s not the point, is it? (she said, following the British tradition of making a question out of a statement by asking listeners who know less about the topic if it’s accurate.) Liking brussels sprouts doesn’t mean I’d like them as a smoothie ingredient anymore than it means I’d want to make them into a tee shirt.

For several years running, I took part in a parade that included a small group of people dressed entirely in kale. And, I’d guess, a few hidden bits of string. Or glue. The year it was hot enough to wilt the kale, it was touch and go which would last longer, the kale or the parade.

Yes, I have had an interesting life.

If you can’t think why this shortage of brussels sprouts constitutes a crisis, I’ll have to refer you to an older post on the role of brussels sprouts in the traditional British Christmas meal. And since this is all so important, to another one of the same topic. Bizarrely enough, they’re among my most popular posts.

Whatever you celebrate or don’t celebrate, I wish you a good one. And I’ll stop adding short extra posts any day now. I know you have real lives calling to you. It’s just that this was too important to skip.

Easter eggs, crime sprees, and personal delivery

Last Saturday’s Western Morning News had a story about a “£300,000 rural crime spree” in which six men stole four-wheel-drives, tractors, trailers, boats, farm equipment, and–this reads like it wandered in from a different story but I swear it didn’t–chocolate Easter eggs. Thousands of pounds worth of chocolate Easter eggs. I’d give you a link but I can’t find the story online. I read it in the print edition. It was on–do you remember paper? It was on paper. So you’ll just have to trust me on this.

Or not. If you think I made it up, no harm done. I’ll get credit for a bizarre imagination.

Screamingly irrelevant photo. J. with Moose. I'll stop with the cat and dog photos soon, but everything else I've shot lately is overexposed.

Screamingly irrelevant photo. J. with Moose. Or the other way around. I’ll stop with the cat and dog photos eventually, but everything else I’ve shot lately is overexposed. Besides, who can resist this one?

How much space does it take to store thousands of pounds worth of Easter eggs? Well, that depends on how much the Easter eggs cost, which (if you were buying instead of stealing them) is another way of saying it depends on your income, or at least outgo. It might take less space than you’d think. Hotel Chocolat sells one for £75, but at Fortnum and Mason, you can drop £90 for a chocolate Easter egg or £250 for a “chocolate beehive sculpture” (sorry–I can’t take that seriously enough to leave it outside of quotation marks; I don’t want the blame for that description). And for that amount, I’ll throw in more quotation marks: It’s made from “majestic” Valrhona chocolate. Whatever the hell Valrhona chocolate is, the price went up by £50 pounds when they glued that adjective to it.

I worked in a candy factory for long enough to lost my taste for the stuff, and although I wouldn’t say they used particularly good chocolate and I wouldn’t hold it up as setting the world standard for chocolates–well, what I’m trying to say is that I’ve never seen majestic chocolate.

Fortnum and Mason can’t send the beehive, by the way. Maybe at £250 you’re not paying enough for that or maybe it’s just too valuable to ship. Either way,you’ll have to pick it up at the store.

Or you can spend your £250 at Betty’s of Harrogate and get Betty’s “Imperial Easter Egg.” Betty delivers. “Personally.” That goes in quotes too. I assume that’s personally to you, not personally by Betty. In fact, I don’t even know that there is a Betty, or that there ever was. And while we’re talking about things I don’t know, I don’t know how much she charges to deliver, because you have to call to find out–the information isn’t online–but if you’re spending £250 for a chunk of decorated chocolate, why quibble about delivery costs?

Okay, let’s get back to that personal delivery. Have you ever had anything sent to you that wasn’t delivered personally? I’m guessing the personally, in this context, means by a person (as opposed to a drone) and to a person. Even if the package is left in the garage, or with a neighbor, it’s still to you, personally. Or, if they insist on it going directly into your anxious little paws, all it means is that you’re stuck waiting around for it.

Who writes this stuff? I once saw a real estate brochure for an apartment building that said it had an indoor elevator. That’s as opposed, presumably, to a trebuchet, which is a £250 word for the kind of catapult used in medieval sieges–an outdoor arrangement that delivers you memorably to granny’s fourth floor apartment if her place doesn’t have an indoor elevator. After you arrive splat in her living room, her place won’t have glass in the window either, blurring the line between indoor and outdoor.

I’ve wandered, haven’t I? We were talking about the Easter eggs.Betty’s is 5.4 kilos of chocolate, milk or dark, If you think in pounds rather than kilos, you can either multiply that by 2.2 or simply accept that it’s a shitload of chocolate. You can also multiply, divide, and go into shock over how much you’re spending per pound. Or ounce.

From Betty’s site I went to Cadbury’s, which asked how much I wanted to spend. The answer was, Oh, lots! and I clicked on the most expensive category, which was “over £50.” That’s me,the reckless spender, but the best they could do for me was offer hampers–enough stuff thrown together to take the price up to an even £50. Given where I’d just come from, I wasn’t impressed. So I checked out Lidl’s, the discount supermarket, where I could buy a bag of chocolate (I think) mini-eggs for £1.29, and they’ll ring them up at the cash register for me personally. After that, I can personally carry it out to my car, munching as I go. Except that I used to work in that candy factory and I’m immune to the lure of anything but good (although not majestic), very plain dark chocolate.

So–returning to the actual story I was telling, and you may have forgotten that there was one but I haven’t–it’s not clear how much storage space the stolen Easter eggs needed. Especially since the Westy didn’t say how many thousands of pounds of Easter eggs it was talking about. The Westy‘s like that. It tells you what it tells you, which is often that the neighbors were shocked and horrified, and leaves out what it leaves out, which can be a great deal. But it does spell neighbors with a U. Always.

Before I leave the topic entirely, I need to credit the members of my writers group, who pointed me in the direction of the Betty’s of Harrogate egg. They’re wonderful, and every bit as strange as I am.

If you celebrate Easter, have a good Easter. And if you don’t–well, neither do I. Whatever you believe, don’t steal any Easter eggs, okay? At the end of it all, you just eat them (it’s too late in the season to sell them) and eating a £250 egg–well, what does that leave you with?

Wishing you a happy but belated Pancake Day

Pancake Day came and went quietly this year. It’s a holiday I never heard of before I moved to the U.K. and it’s such a quiet one that I’d been here a couple of years before I even noticed it.

Pancake Day is also known as Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent starts. Traditionally, anyone who kept Lent gave up everything fun, and that put a lot of pressure on that last pre-Lent day. So New Orleans went wild with Mardi Gras and still does. Brazil cut loose during Carnival and keeps right on doing it. And the British? They eat pancakes.

Does this country know how to throw a party or what?

Screamingly irrelevant photo: This is from New Zealand and has nothing to do with anything. Nice, isn't it? Photo by Ida Swearingen

Screamingly irrelevant photo: This is from New Zealand and has nothing to do with anything here. Nice, isn’t it? Photo by Ida Swearingen

The logic of Pancake Day is inescapable. People were supposed to give up eggs, milk, and sugar during lent, so they used them up the night before by making pancakes. What were they supposed to do with the eggs the chickens went right on laying and the milk the cow kept on giving? Because cows and chickens don’t care if it’s Lent. They don’t believe in any religion, and even if they did biological processes are hard to control But what do I know? I’m Jewish and I’m an atheist, and if that isn’t enough I grew up in New York, where we didn’t keep a lot of cows or chickens. So I’m not an expert on this stuff. In fact, I thought all a person had to do during Lent was give up one thing, like orange bubble gum or blue frosting. But maybe that’s a toned-down modern approach.

Anyway, these days Britain’s long on tradition but light on traditional religion. So it substitutes eating pancakes for emptying the cupboards of all the good stuff and entering a somber season in a sugar-free, egg-free, lactose-free condition. And even I can get behind eating pancakes, although not on a fixed day every year, which accounts for me being late with this post.

So let’s talk about pancakes. They never go out of season.

British pancakes—at least the ones I’ve had—are more like French crepes, which is to say, thin. I first tasted them when a neighbor borrowed some flour because he had to make pancakes that night–it was Pancake Day–and in payment he brought us each a pancake, with lemon (I think) and (definitely) sugar. They were good. I can’t think of a bad thing to say about them. But sometimes a person just wants a thick ol’ American pancake. So be warned, I’m leading up to a recipe. Because no matter how good British pancakes are, I believe in the American version. What can I tell you? Talk to me about food and I’m capable of unreasoning patriotism.

I’ve seen British food writers offer approximations of American pancakes and they have some strange ideas about how we make them. One adds vanilla and honey but no baking soda or baking powder. Which is why she has to beat hell out of the egg whites. Another beats hell out of the whole mix until it’s thoroughly blended and lumpless, which is a good idea if you’re making a cake but not so great if you want pancakes, because they need a lumpy batter.

Why the food writers don’t just look in an American cookbook I don’t know, but here’s my recipe.

Pancakes

Serves 2 moderate eaters; for enthusiastic eaters, double the recipe and eat the leftovers cold and straight from the refrigerator

1 cup (4 oz.) flour

1 tsp. sugar

½ tsp. salt

¾ tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. bicarbonate of soda

1 egg

½ cup (or more) buttermilk (or plain milk with about 1 tsp. of cider or white vinegar added*)

1 Tbsp. (½ oz.) melted butter

Optional: blueberries, peaches, or raspberries

Put the dry ingredients in a bowl and whisk them together. That’s instead of sifting. I’m a lazy cook and this works. Beat the egg into the milk and add it to the dry ingredients. Add the butter. Stir until just barely mixed, leaving some lumps. Add more milk if you need to until you get a thick but pourable batter. The thinner the batter, the thinner the pancakes will be.

Stir the fruit in last.

Heat the frying pan (or several pans, which will let you cook them faster) over a medium-high heat until a drop of water bounces (in theory; I usually settle for it sizzling madly). Add a bit of oil or butter and spread it with a spatula. If you’re using a non-stick pan, you don’t need much; if you’re not, you’ll need more and will have to add more before each new pancake. Pour in a ladleful of batter. I generally make my pancakes a bit bigger than CD-size. but you can make smaller ones if you like. Hell, you can shape them into the letters of the alphabet if you want, but they’ll be hard to flip. Don’t put a cover on the the pan. Bubbles will rise and then break, signaling that the bottom’s probably done. Sneak a look and if it’s brown, flip the pancake. Leave the second side on the pan long enough for the center to cook through.

You may need to adjust the heat as you go. If the pancakes burn, turn it down. If they don’t brown, turn it up. You’d probably have figured that out without me saying it.

You can feed them to the ravening hordes as they get done of keep them warm in a very low oven until they’re all cooked and you can sit down yourself.

Serve with butter and maple syrup. Or if you’re in a Lenten kind of mood, with plain old yogurt, which is surprisingly good with them.

 

*The milk will curdle when you mix in the vinegar. That’s fine.